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SCREW U: We have long followed with amusement and indignation the follies of University of Arizona administrators, most notably Celestino Fernandez' exercise in empire-building--the ill-fated Arizona International Campus--and library dean Carla Stoffle's efforts to eviscerate the Center for Creative Photography. But now that we've come across an outstanding UA administrator, we'd like to praise the institution.

We'd like to, but we can't, because the UA is trampling the guy under a series of typically bad decisions.

Randall Richardson started out in the geosciences department, rose to the position of associate vice president for undergraduate education, and 19 months ago moved up a level to become full v.p. for undergraduate ed, if only while a search committee looked for a permanent replacement for outgoing veep Mike Gottfredson.

Richardson proved to be a cautious innovator with a devotion to teaching and learning, not just research--exactly what's needed in that position. He had plenty of experience, with serious curriculum work at the UA going back to 1995. He seems to have gotten along with everybody even while working on projects that could profoundly change--and, with luck, improve--the way the UA teaches its undergrads, who are customarily regarded as little more than beer-swilling brats good only for providing a bit of tuition income. Richardson has recently run into trouble, though, because, among other things, a promise he made for matching funds for a major grant has apparently been sabotaged, perhaps inadvertently, in some other layer of the UA's administrative baloney sandwich.

Richardson was one of three finalists for the job, along with faculty chair Jerry Hogle and, as usual, an out-of-towner, this one named George Bridges. Of the three, Richardson was obviously the most familiar with the lower-division general education curriculum, had already served ably and sincerely in the position, and would logically be first choice for the vice-presidency. Hogle, who already knew his way around the UA, wouldn't have been a bad choice himself. But in the academic tradition of shunning candidates who've come up through your own system, the committee's top recommendation was Bridges.

After taking one look at the UA, Bridges high-tailed it back to wherever he came from. So will the UA be forced to do the right thing and hire one of the inside men? It seems not. The search committee hasn't said publicly whether it intends to reconsider the remaining original candidates or re-open the national search, but nothing seems likely to be decided soon. Hogle has been bought off with an appointment to the chairmanship of the extremely influential Strategic Planning and Budgetary Committee. Richardson has merely been told that, in the event a candidate has not been accepted by the end of his current term as interim vice president this fall, he may have his interimship extended for another six to nine months. Under the circumstances, Richardson could be excused for spending the next year circulating his curriculum vita among other, more appreciative universities.

In any case, the expense of the taxpayer-funded search is bound to increase--significantly, if a new national candidate is sought.

If the UA wants to spend money, here's what it should do. If it doesn't give Richardson the vice-presidency, it should compensate for thrusting him into this awkward, demeaning position by setting him up in a well-furnished office where he can be fed grapes by a voluptuous woman, fanned with palm fronds by a naked boy, and serenaded by sitars in an adjoining room. There he can wait comfortably for the job he really deserves. After all, in a couple of years, UA prez Peter Likins is bound to retire.

KOLBE'S CONUNDRUM: Congressman Jim Kolbe has plenty to be worried about as the state's new five-member redistricting committee redraws the lines of Congressional District 5. Under the preliminary map that has been released, Kolbe loses much of his base in the Catalina Foothills and picks up much of the south portion of Tucson, parts of the O'odham reservation and a chunk of Santa Cruz County. That leaves Kolbe vulnerable to both conservative Republicans in a primary and liberal Democrats in a general.

Still, Kolbe is close to Steve Lynn, the public relations maestro who is chairing the redistricting committee. Will the lines shift in his favor as the final draft is completed? Wait and see.

DISCOUNT POLITICS: One of our many spies tells us he just got off the phone with a market research firm doing work for a larger retailer that sounded suspiciously like good old Wal-Mart. Evidently, the phone call was something of a push poll designed to get voters riled up over the mild restrictions on big-box stores. The big boxers asked if our informant thought the new rules would drive up prices and hurt consumers, and even tried to draft him into writing letters to officials complaining about the regs.

So is Wally-Mart considering wading into the city elections? The corporation still has a local political committee, Consumers for Retail Choice, an astroturf outfit it used when it tried--and failed--to buy enough signatures to put the big-box regs on the ballot last year. Perhaps we haven't heard the last of them yet --

YOUR TRANSPORATION DOLLARS AT WORK: Now that the city has spent more than $750,000 for a study of alternatives for Fifth/Sixth Street, the consultants have a recommendation: more consultation. Guess who gets the paycheck for that?

That's a lot of money for a study that will likely result in no significant change whatsoever. Car crazies want to widen the street, but there's no money for that (and there probably never will be). The neighborhood nuts, meanwhile, want to limit traffic to one lane in each direction, widen bike lanes, create a center turn lane and experiment with mass transit. But in our auto-erotic society, that's probably dead on arrival as well.

Some denizens of the Fifth-Sixth corridor are getting fed up with the talk-to-death process. They suggest, instead of doing any more study, the city commit money to small-scale projects like sidewalks, bus pull-outs and landscaping.

It's a radical notion that probably won't go far. But city planners have included $52,000 in next year's Capital Improvement Project budget to do something along the street next year--unless it gets spent on yet another study.

THANKS FOR NOTHING: Taxpayers, judging from gushy TV and daily rag coverage of Pima County's record $956 million budget, somehow are supposed to be thankful that the Board of Supervisors minimized a property tax increase. Instead of one that would have added $13 to the annual bill for a home on the tax rolls for $100,000, the board capped it at $2. The real story is that Pima supervisors, who have the dubious distinction of levying the highest property taxes of any county in Arizona, didn't cut the horrendously high primary rate of $4.07 per $100 (or $407 a year for that $100,000 home). The county's total rate now is $5.58, or $558 a year in county taxes for a $100,000 home and $1,395 a year in county taxes for a business property assessed at $100,000. Those bills are 3.5 times higher than what similarly valued properties will pay in Maricopa County taxes.

Democratic Supervisors Raúl Grijalva, Dan Eckstrom and Sharon Bronson set this course two summers ago when they jacked up taxes (for the third consecutive year) by an alarming 11 percent. The money from the increase was needed, taxpayers were told, to erase health system debt. That debt, of more than $45 million, was paid off ahead of schedule.

Taxes should have been cut, not kept at the record level for the third straight year. Where were Republicans Ray Carroll and Ann Day? Sugar Ray has been riding his anti-sales tax horse for four years. He ought to explain his inaction to Green Valley voters, who will pay an average of $558 this year in Pima County taxes while their square-dance--er, swing partners in Sun City West outside Phoenix will pay $158 in county taxes.

NET LOSS, NETO GAIN: The Star's big-bucks columnist Ernesto Portillo Jr. made a return to the cover of Section B this week after an exile to the garden of his Casas Adobes home. Readers were sin Neto for a couple of weeks after editors were forced to spike one too many of his dud columns. This tense situation was supposedly worked out during a sitdown Star bosses had with Neto under a tree outside the Star's downtown bureau at La Placita.

We'd like to help with some column ideas. 1) Cops who pad their time cards, get fired, hire a lawyer and win their jobs back; 2) Cops who fall asleep behind the wheel of their patrol cars; 3) Fake Cubans; 4) California transplants who put their kids in Tucson Unified School District schools even though they live outside TUSD. As a bonus, here is the type of discovery and quaint story that Neto should avoid: an illiterate newspaper vendor who sells the Star/Citizen downtown. The rest of that story--that the cute old vendor was kicked out of the Superior Court Building for allegedly groping women--won't fit the Star formula, as Neto learned when editors killed that particular column.

SNAKE CHARMERS: Hissing from the Tucson Sidewinders and their parent the Arizona Diamondbacks over a KFMA concert Pima County put in Tucson Electric Park was completely overdone. We like the Sidewinders, and owner Jay Zucker is trying his best. But the fact remains that the team, thanks to a one-sided lease Zucker inherited, is a huge financial drain on Pima County taxpayers. Sunday's concert brought the county twice as much money--$55,000--as the Sidewinders pay for an entire season. The county is permitted under the lease to have events on non-game days. Lucky for taxpayers.

LIGHT BRIGADE: In 1986, the City of Tucson launched a crusade to remove unnecessary traffic signals. With fewer lights, cars would zip smoothly along, turning our brown skies blue.

In the end, the city got rid of all of a dozen lights. Three were along lightly-traveled University Boulevard, at Fourth, Sixth and Stone avenues.

Flash forward to 15 years later: There's been a four-way stop signal at Fourth and University since the traffic light went out, and a four-way signal returned to Sixth and University long ago to prevent accidents.

Now the city is planning to put a special traffic light back in at Stone Avenue and University. The new light will work like a similar device at Country Club Road and Third Street. It'll allow pedestrians and bikes to cross Stone, but cars will be forced to make a right turn. So get ready to stop occasionally if you're driving down Stone.

The new signal, dubbed a "toucan" by the traffic gang, will help deal with problems created by the hideous brown apartment complex at Stone and University. It'll deter students living at the complex from barreling down University Boulevard when they're late for class.

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